Montgomery County yesterday joined a growing list of jurisdictions around the country that have imposed tougher zoning restrictions on big-box retailers, marking a victory for unions and Giant Food LLC, which joined forces to lobby for the restrictions.
The council voted, 7 to 0, to adopt zoning rules that allow retailers to open so-called "combination retail stores" -- discount stores of at least 120,000 square feet with a full-service grocery and pharmacy -- only in specific commercial zones and then, only with a special permit.
Councilman George L. Leventhal said a store owner asked him to support the tougher restrictions.
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The zoning rules essentially subject some big-box stores to an additional layer of review by county officials and provide another opportunity for public input.
While the amendment passed yesterday does not name specific retailers, in practice, it would affect only Wal-Mart Supercenters, SuperTargets, and the supermarket chain Wegmans. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has 10 stores in the Washington metropolitan area, including one in Germantown, as well as three Supercenters, including one in Hagerstown. The only SuperTarget in the area is in Leesburg. Wegmans has a store in Sterling.
Before the vote, a couple of council members cited Wal-Mart by name. George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) said he decided to support the bill after meeting with a local hardware store owner who begged him to keep Wal-Mart out of Montgomery County.
Wal-Mart officials complained that the new zoning restrictions are "anti-consumer" and unfairly single out the Bentonville, Ark., retailer. "It's disappointing that the council would choose a definition that is essentially a Wal-Mart Supercenter," said spokeswoman Mia T. Masten.
Wal-Mart lobbyists were relieved, however, that the zoning restrictions fall short of a ban, such as the one recently adopted by Calvert County. That county caps retail store size at 125,000 square feet -- about twice the size of a normal grocery store.
"As long as the special exception process is objective and looks at an application on its merits . . . we can work with that," Masten said.
The new rules will have "no impact" on the company's decision to expand in Montgomery County in the future, though Wal-Mart has no immediate plans to build or expand an existing store there, Masten said.
She added that the company has not necessarily ruled out Montgomery County, as well as the District, as potential markets.